Wood – A big chance for sustainability?

Timber, in the past, was available in large quantities so it made sense to use it. But why still use it today, especially for unseen structural needs? While checking this, let’s include other lingo-cellulosic materials such as bamboo (a grass) and hemp. With wise management, wood and fibrous crops are the only kinds of materials that can come close to being sustainable. They grow with minimal intervention and soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These are irrefutable advantages in the times of climate warming.

Other materials are mined from finite resources and are, by definition, ultimately unsustainable. Also, they require lots of energy for their collection and processing. To make matters worse, carbon dioxide is almost always an unwanted by-product along with other detrimental pollutants, which still end up in the atmosphere or ocean.

Sweeping sustainability claims about wood and fibre need a little bit of qualification. We know that not all forest practices are conducted sustainably. However, where best practice is the norm, auditing certifies sustainability on a wide range of criteria. In addition, we can still expect continuing research and progressive improvement. Now, consider the alternative: materials such as steel, aluminium are mined on vast scales. They demand a huge transport and manufacturing infrastructure to transform the raw materials from the ground to a useable product. This is still overwhelmingly dependent upon fossil fuels. Making matters worse, as easily accessed resources get consumed, the infrastructure needs increase. Consider the example of concrete used at large urban growth centres. It is a lot harder than it used to be to source aggregates close by.

Re-cycling can be part of a moderating plan but, for many of our cast off goods, the final destination is landfill. That can only be seen as an admission of failure.

Timber products are not made at zero cost to the environment but the energy required to convert wood into a useable form is a fraction of mined materials. Products from wood can be in sawn ‘solid’ form, or engineered into laminated sheets and other structural forms. Fibrous material can even be made into non petro-chemical plastics. In Spain, high design value furniture is made from almond husks and natural resins. This is not a new technology. Follow this link to an entertaining film clip of Henry Ford taking to a large hammer to a cellulose-derived-plastic-panelled car. He failed to put a dent in it and the year was 1941! How different could the trajectory of the automotive industry have been had these natural fibre-resin panels become the norm 70 years ago? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srgE6Tzi3Lg

When we stop using cellulose and fibre objects, they can be recycled and, finally, returned to the earth as a nutrient. That is real recycling. This remarkable and easy-on-the-earth life cycle is the benchmark for all our materials in the future. As time progresses, we can hope that science, technology and our own common sense may deliver this ‘holy grail’ to us. That is the ultimate goal of zero waste and it is best that it happens sooner than later.

There is a good example of design for zero waste in the Botanical Gardens in Hobart where a pavilion called the ‘Wombat’ was build decades ago. It was constructed by a group that included its designers; architects David Travalia and Rick Leplastrier. They used eucalypt in small sections of standard sizes, in a way that allowed for disassembly and reuse. There was no design compromise. It is a beautiful and simple structure and well worth a visit.

We have a dilemma. The more we encourage using timber the more we create opportunities for unscrupulous operators to conduct unsustainable and highly damaging forestry. Criminal plundering is not easily stopped. Unmoderated global population growth only adds to the pressure. It is a complicated process to make sustainability certification widespread. There are powerful self-interests at play that are enmeshed in national cultures, global politics and market behaviours.

Crises may well force us to make wiser choices to preference sustainability. It is time for producers and users of unsustainable materials to reduce their use and deliberately design for sustainability. Fortunately, some are working hard to do so. But, it will prove to be very difficult to achieve without using the fibre provided by nature, thoughtfully and intelligently. In a real sense, every stick is precious.

The photo is a piece of ‘Bog-Oak’, pulled from a pit in Latvia and is thought to be 1000 years old. Peter Costello, October 2014
Bog Oak